It’s been one week since Mom went missing.

– “Please Look After Mom”

Five adult children and their elderly father are gathered together at a house in Seoul. They are drafting a missing person flyer for their mother. She has been gone for a week, lost in a moment of carelessness at busy Seoul Station.

As they work on and argue over making the most effective flyer, questions arise: Was Mom born in 1936 or 1938? Why don’t we have a recent picture of her? Why was it no one went to meet her and Father at the train station?

So begins Kyung-sook Shin’s English language debut, “Please Look After Mom”, a novel that is both a moving portrait of a family in crisis and an allegory of modern Korea’s relationship with its past.

A Man’s World

Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular contemporary writers. The author of many works of fiction and non-fiction, “Please Look After Mom” is her breakout title. The novel has sold more than a million copies here in Korea and has been translated into 19 different languages. I think it’s safe to say “Please Look After Mom” is set to become the most widely read Korean novel of all time.

Please Look After Mom

Please Look After Mom

Structurally the story owes an obvious debt to William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”.

Divided into four parts and an epilogue, each section is narrated by a different member of the family. Each of these voices offers a perspective on Mom — perspectives that are by turns conflicting, complicating, or compatible. It is a delicate story that relies on nuance and subtelty rather than red herrings and big reveals. Giving away too much here might diminish a prospective reading experience — and this is a book you should read.

The plot is simple: Where is Mom? But what matters isn’t simply that Mom is missing. What matters is that she was only marginally present before her disappearance because she was never truly known, never understood by her family. Identity – how we see ourselves, how others see us, where we fit in history – is a key theme running through the novel.

How well do we know the people with whom we are most intimate? This question is well-worn territory in the world of literature and has been treated by innumerable writers. Kyung-sook Shin does as good a job as many in exploring it. When examined through the lens of Realism, “Please Look After Mom” offers an authentic picture of the difficulties faced by many women in post-war Korea.

To paraphrase James Brown: Korea is a man’s man’s man’s world. In 1995 the United Nations Development Progamme began compiling data for a Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). The GEM indicates women’s participation in a given country’s politics and business, and the income differential between men and women.

When the initial set of GEM statistics were released in 1995, South Korea ranked 90th out of 116 countries. In the years since then Korea has worked to improve quality of life for its female citizens, steadily climbing to the low-mid tier of GEM rankings. That said, this is still a country that has a long way to go in realizing and respecting the rights of a full half of its citizenry.

What “Please Look After Mom” highlights is the tendency, in no way unique to Korea, to treat women as little more than a commodity. Kyung-sook Shin’s characters are dumbfounded by the notion that Mom would have dreams and aspirations other than serving her family. When Chi-hon, the oldest daughter, asks her younger sister, now a mother herself, if she thought their Mom enjoyed cooking for the family, the younger sibling is at first unable to even register the question. After all, you wouldn’t ask of oxygen if it enjoys being breathed, of food if it enjoys being eaten.

I would be doing a great disservice to this book if I were to suggest it is some kind of feminist rant. It isn’t. It is a far more complicated, nuanced work than mere polemic. But in a country where it is routinely expected of a woman to hang upon a cross for her family, “Please Look After Mom” presents a host of challenging questions.

The Yoknapatawpha Connection

When Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County — the fictional Mississippi county in which the vast majority of his novels are set — he was trying, in part, to make sense of the influence of the past.

The Antebellum South had been gone for sixty years when Faulkner began writing, yet it cast a shadow on every aspect of Faulkner’s life. How was America to understand and navigate its legacy of slavery? At his best, Faulkner alegorized our need to forge new traditions in the absence of old ways. His stories are intensely regional but manage to speak to universal human concerns.

Similarly, I think “Please Look After Mom” can be read as an allegory of Korea’s breakneck pursuit of modernization — with plenty of universal implications.

Sixty years ago Korea was engaged in a fierce, bloody, devastating civil war. Over 1.3 million Koreans died in combat, with millions more dying afterwards from starvation and sickness. The country was divided, a tentative cease fire was reached, and both sides have lived with the threat of war since.

Every day I see people who lived through the war. I work with people who remember fleeing their homes as the front rolled towards them. I know people who have living family members who were tortured by South Korea’s secret police in the 1960′s and 70′s. I have spoken with people who risked their lives in pro-democracy demonstrations. I once lived thirty minutes from Gwangju, Jeollanam-do, a city where, in 1980, as many as 2,000 civilians were gunned down by the government during a pro-democracy event.

Korea in the 20th-century was as volatile and dramatic as any nation in history.

And yet you would hardly know this from visiting Korea today. In the few decades since the Korean War, Korea has transformed from a war-ravaged, poverty ridden, police state, to a high-tech, fully modern, democratic country with one of the biggest economies in the world. It has been a truly remarkable transformation.

But what if you lived through that transformation?

In “Please Look After Mom” Mom is clearly suffering from dementia. The family is in denial and Mom for her part strives to deny or hide her worsening condition. Routine tasks that she has performed throughout her life — making kimchi, tending the garden, going into town for cooking supplies — are suddenly a cause for debilitating confusion. As her mind weakens Mom begins losing memories of a way of life that her children and grandchildren will never experience.

Mom, like many older Koreans, represents a generation that laid the foundation for modern Korea — and who find themselves now living in a foreign country.

Near the end of the book Mom asks a rhetorical question: “Do you think that things happening now are linked to things from the past and things in the future, it’s just that we can’t feel them? I don’t know, could that be true? Sometimes when I look at my grandchildren I think that they were dropped down from somewhere out of the blue, and that they have nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with me at all.”

Today, Korea is a far more comfortable place to live than it was a couple of generations ago — food, night life, nice cars, smartphones, videogames, all the bells and whistles of an industrialized nation. But how high is the cost of comfort if it comes at the expense of relationships and a remembrance of things past?

When Mom disappeared her family lost forever something of immeasurable value that they never fully understood or appreciated. No amount of material comfort can compensate for that kind of loss.

“Please Look After Mom”

Kyung-sook Shin’s “Please Look After Mom” is a worthy read. It grabbed me from the first sentence and wouldn’t let go — I read all 235 pages in a single sitting.

I should note that Chi-Young Kim’s translation renders the story in elegant, unpretentious English. An excellent effort.

Hopefully, the novel’s success in America (it was a New York Times bestseller in April 2011) will usher in a wider range of Korean literature in English translation. The book is available in hardcover and in Kindle format.

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And if you’ve read “Please Look After Mom” what did you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!